A Deeply Provincial View of Free Speech

Many prominent writers and thinkers seem invested in the notion that simply facing strong public criticism is a threat to free speech.

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As protests against racist violence continue around the country during a deadly pandemic, a group of journalists, authors, artists, and academics has taken a stand against “a “stifling atmosphere [that] will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”

In an open letter published on the Harper’s website last week, 153 figures, including J. K. Rowling, Fareed Zakaria, and Malcolm Gladwell, condemned the rise of a culture characterized by “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The short manifesto argued that the “forces of illiberalism” are gaining strength across the political spectrum, beyond the radical right and the supporters of Donald Trump, as writers and thinkers face severe professional consequences for “perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” Several of my colleagues at The Atlantic signed the letter, which echoes the sentiment of other recent pieces from prominent writers, including the Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi, the New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan, and the Johns Hopkins professor and Atlantic contributor Yascha Mounk. All of these statements contend that the democratic ideal of open debate is under siege at a time when it is most needed.

The Harper’s letter’s ostensible message championing the “free exchange of information and ideas” is easy enough to agree with, especially at a time when the president of the United States has made himself an enemy of the First Amendment and a free press. And yet the letter has led to a charged debate in the current fraught media climate. In recent years, defenses of “free speech” have often been wielded by people in positions of power in response to critics who want to hold them accountable for the real-life harm their words might cause. Many of these public figures frame any such consequences for their ideas as “cancel culture,” a phrase both hazy and incendiary that is broadly applied and often used defensively, the way someone might describe an article they don’t like as “clickbait,” simply to dismiss it.

The letter in Harper’s vaguely alludes to instances of alleged silencing that sparked complicated discussions, very often about institutional racism. “Whatever the arguments around each particular incident,” the letter concludes, “the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.” (At least two of the signatories have since distanced themselves from the statement, and on Friday another group of writers and academics published a lengthy counterletter that originated in a Slack channel called Journalists of Color.)

That the signatories of a letter denouncing a perceived constriction of public speech are among their industries’ highest-paid and most widely published figures is a large and obvious irony. Many of the writers who signed their name have been employed or commissioned by outlets including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vox, The Washington Post, and this magazine. Several have received lucrative book deals; others—like Rowling, Salman Rushdie, and Wynton Marsalis—are global icons. The educators on the list are affiliated with universities including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia.

There’s something darkly comical about the fretfulness of these elite petitioners. It’s telling that the censoriousness they identify as a national plague isn’t the racism that keeps Black journalists from reporting on political issues, or the transphobia that threatens their colleagues’ lives. The letter denounces “the restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society,” strategically blurring the line between these two forces. But the letter’s chief concern is not journalists living under hostile governments, despite the fact that countries around the world impose draconian limits on press freedom.

Across the globe, the challenge facing journalists and intellectuals is not the pain of Twitter scorn; the Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that at least 250 journalists were imprisoned worldwide last year for their reporting. In the U.S., the Trump administration continues to threaten reporters’ safety and undermine the belief that journalists play a valuable role in a democracy. The country is moving deeper into an economic recession, decimating industries including journalism and academia. And yet the suddenly unemployed people the Harper’s statement references clearly lost their jobs not because of a pandemic or government pressure, but for actions criticized as potentially harming marginalized groups. This small group includes James Bennet, the former editor of the New York Times editorial page (and a former editor in chief of this magazine), who was forced to resign after the op-ed page he supervised published an article by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton that endorsed state violence.

To meaningfully acknowledge the political threat that many journalists face worldwide, or to name the violence and economic insecurity that disproportionately affect certain groups working in media, would require conceding that critical tweets are not censorship. But the passively worded Harper’s statement is damaging in large part because of the issues it doesn’t name—but which are apparent through the work of its signatories. Rowling, Jesse Singal, and Katie Herzog, for example, have all attracted criticism in recent years for their writing and public comments about transgender people. Many activists, scientists, and other experts on gender identity have argued that these writers’ work actively contributes to circumstances in which trans people suffer disproportionately high rates of violence, unemployment, and suicide. In response to such challenges, writers like Singal frequently invoke the importance of “open debate” and “freedom of speech”—all while continuing to enjoy the privilege of writing cover stories for national publications like The Atlantic.

This subtext isn’t explained in the letter. But as the writer Gabrielle Bellot (who also contributes to The Atlantic) pointed out in an essay for LitHub, these signatories’ refusal to seriously weigh their own frustrations against others’ experiences effectively sidelines entire groups of public thinkers, especially transgender people, who have often been the subject of their writing: “The largest issue seemed clear to me, in part because I was accustomed to it: that the letter, at core, was at once a theoretical defense of intellectual freedom and a carefully veiled invitation to use dehumanizing rhetoric under the bastion of ‘the free exchange of ideas.’”

In addition, the Harper’s letter tacitly conflates the president’s raft of anti-media practices and open disdain for the press with the signatories’ own irritation at the prospect of being ratioed on Twitter or fired because of the “woke” brigade. The author Thomas Chatterton Williams, who spearheaded the letter, told The New York Times that some of the events that inspired the statement echoed the actions of Donald Trump, whom he dubbed the “Canceler in Chief.” But Trump would more accurately be described as a violent demagogue and a mendacious racist. He is not, as Williams seems to suggest, dangerous simply because of his interest in stifling free expression. Even this comparison is revelatory. Amid a worsening pandemic and ongoing protests against lethal state violence, using glib internet-speak to describe the president of the United States betrays a deep detachment from the carnage wrought by his policies and ideology. It is important to remember: The president is not merely a Twitter troll, but the leader of an awesomely powerful government security apparatus.

Therein lies the central paradox of calls to return to an (always unspecified) era of civil discourse: What is the value of a debate that considers some human lives mainly as theoretical quandaries? Statements like the Harper’s letter rely on a key assumption—that the romanticized concept of “open debate” is inherently democratic or even “open” at all. (Such arguments dovetail neatly with the media’s industry-wide obsession with mythic objectivity.) But public discourse is always governed by some set of implicit guidelines or barriers. Too often, the people who wax poetic about free speech from safely behind a MacBook Air somewhere on the Upper West Side have not historically faced prohibitive obstacles to advancing their ideas.

Any good-faith understanding of principles such as free speech and due process requires acknowledging some basic truths: Facing widespread criticism on Twitter, undergoing an internal workplace review, or having one’s book panned does not, in fact, erode one’s constitutional rights or endanger a liberal society. (And for that matter, even authors who have received powerful social-media backlash have continued to find support with other prominent publishers and media outlets.) As the writer Osita Nwanevu recently argued in The New Republic, “When a speaker is denied or when staffers at a publication argue that something should not have been published, the rights of the parties in question haven’t been violated in any way.”

A forceful and sweeping case for free speech—again, a constitutional principle, not one governing private institutions or Twitter feeds—would require engaging with the history of discrimination in journalism, academia, and literature. But the brief and ambiguous Harper’s letter does not convey the complexity of the forces shaping open discourse today. Who has most often shared their ideas with impunity? Who is discouraged, even banned, from doing so? Who cannot afford to enter the field at all, because legacy publications such as Harper’s still do not pay their interns? Serious grappling with these issues, instead of virtue signaling, would actually help foster the conditions for more vibrant public dialogue. Instead, in their rush to fetishize civil disagreement, the would-be defenders of free speech reproduce the same circular logic that has powered elite circles for generations. Nobody needed an open letter to be reminded of that.